Huron East Council composition, ward system remains status quo
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
The composition of Huron East Council will remain status quo through the 2022 municipal election after a conversation on the topic ended before it began at council’s Dec. 21 meeting, its last of the year.
Chief Administrative Officer Brad McRoberts raised the issue with council, presenting a report at council’s Dec. 21 meeting, which was held virtually via Zoom. As one of the items listed in a report he presented at council’s previous meeting, which some councillors interpreted as a long-term strategic planning document, McRoberts presented council with six options for its composition moving forward. They ranged from the status quo to a seven-member council with no ward system, all with associated costs.
However, due to its inclusion in McRoberts’ Dec. 7 report, some councillors didn’t think they’d be discussing this issue before the election. However, if changes were made before the end of 2021, they could take effect for the 2022 municipal election. This fact, however, led some councillors to accuse Mayor Bernie MacLellan - a long-time proponent of a smaller council - of pushing something through at the 11th hour, leaving councillors little time to think about the issue or consult with their constituents.
The options presented by McRoberts were:
1. The status quo, including a mayor elected at-large and two councillors per ward with a deputy-mayor appointed by councillors at a cost of $178,000 per year.
2. The mayor and deputy-mayor both being elected at-large and two councillors per ward for a total of 12 representatives at an annual cost of $194,000.
3. The mayor and deputy-mayor elected at large and one councillor elected from each ward for a total of seven council members. This option would cost $113,000 per year.
4. The mayor, deputy-mayor and five councillors all elected at-large, eliminating the ward system for an annual cost of $113,000.
5. The mayor, deputy-mayor and seven councillors all elected at-large, which would also eliminate the ward system, for a total annual cost of $146,000.
6. The mayor, deputy-mayor and nine councillors all elected at-large for a total of 11 members of council for a cost of $178,000 per year.
MacLellan spoke to the issue first saying that, by trimming council, it could save the ratepayers of Huron East $65,000 per year, adding that it has been no secret over the years that he has advocated for a smaller council. While Huron East Council is the largest council in the county, as Councillor Larry McGrath pointed out later in the meeting, it is also one of the most cost-effective, despite its size.
Councillor Ray Chartrand, however, said he was surprised to see the item on the agenda and felt it was inappropriate for MacLellan to try and rush through a potential change to the composition of council or the ward system at the final meeting of the year. Councillors would have no opportunity to speak to their constituents or do any of their own research, as a result, Chartrand said. He then made a motion to retain the status quo before any other councillors spoke to the issue, saying council has had three years to contemplate any of these changes, but failed to act.
He also said he felt McRoberts’ report left out some crucial details, such as the geographical size of Huron East as easily the largest municipality in the county with a dispersed population, adding that over 50 per cent of the residents live in two of the municipality’s five wards (Tuckersmith and Seaforth).
When this issue had been raised before, Chartrand said, it had been done after extensive consultation with the chief administrative officer at the time, the municipality’s administration committee and ratepayers, saying none of that had taken place this time around.
MacLellan admitted that he did say he felt the issue should be discussed next year with any changes to take effect for the 2026 municipal election, but then added that there was some confusion about the cycle that allowed for change. He said there was some thinking that any changes needed to be made a year before the municipal election, when in fact they needed to be made before the calendar year turned. In regards to Chartrand saying he was surprised to see the issue on the agenda, MacLellan said he shouldn’t have been, saying that the issue has been discussed at least once every term he has been on council.
Deputy-Mayor Bob Fisher seconded the motion and agreed with Chartrand, saying he too was surprised to see the issue up for discussion at the final meeting of the year.
McGrath reiterated that, despite its size, Huron East Council remains one of the most cost-efficient councils in the county. If members were reduced to save money, he said, inevitably each member would incur rising costs as the job gets more demanding, so he felt the savings just wouldn’t be there.
Councillor Alvin McLellan agreed, saying the savings to be realized by the municipality as a result of this move were, in his opinion, only on paper. As the responsibilities shared by two ward councillors were consolidated into one position, surely it would become more taxing and more compensation would follow. Furthermore, he said, that shift would likely make the job less desirable to many people who simply couldn’t handle that workload.
Outgoing Councillor John Lowe agreed with McLellan. In what was his final meeting as a Huron East councillor, Lowe cited his own experience, saying he is burnt out and stretched too thin, which is why he chose to resign earlier this year. If the job was even more onerous, surely it would tax people and bring them to their limit.
Chartrand’s motion asked that council retain the status quo, leaving it up to the newly-elected council in the fall of 2022 to discuss any potential changes if they so wished.
MacLellan, however, was concerned with that timeline. In his experience, he said, new councillors will be elected and then profess their inexperience and say they don’t want to tackle such a loaded issue in their first years as a councillor. As a result, he said, council can find itself in a never-ending loop with no changes ever being made.
Fisher said he didn’t feel that was the case, but instead remembered that, in his time on council, any changes being roundly rejected time after time, saying there simply doesn’t seem to be the appetite for it.
Council carried Chartrand’s motion to retain the status quo and let the new council make whatever changes it sees fit. Only Mayor MacLellan and Councillor Joe Steffler voted against the motion, which passed with nine votes for it and just two against.